Everyone not called Marc Márquez will be worried at the Motorland Aragon circuit. They will be worried at the fact that the reigning champion, and last year's winner, went out and put in a fast lap in FP1 on soft tires. They will be worried because that lap was 1.6 seconds faster than anyone in FP1, and 1.1 seconds faster than anyone in FP2.
But above all, they will be worried that it was a demonstration of his confidence in his own pace. Márquez went for a quick lap during FP1 thinking of Saturday, and the likelihood that rain would prevent anyone from going faster during FP3. More importantly, it allowed him to spend all of FP2 on his race pace, in conditions likely to be similar to race time on Sunday afternoon.
It was a typical stroke of strategic genius, Márquez and his team giving himself a head start on preparing for the race. Not only has he had more time figuring out whether to use the hard or the soft rear tire for the race – as so often, the medium is neither fish nor flesh, the drop not much smaller than with the soft, the grip not much more than with the hard – he has also had time to work on race setup. Márquez is already two steps ahead of everyone else before they have even lined up on the grid.
Fast out of the blocks
It is hard to overstate just how difficult it is to do this. Riders take time to acclimatize to the speed of a MotoGP bike, even if they have only been off the bike for less than a week. They take time to figure out the grip of the track, what the surface and tires will stand before letting go. Teams take a few exits before they figure out the ideal configuration to extract maximum performance from the bike, and giving their riders a chance to compete.
Marc Márquez took just 19 laps to get within a quarter of a second of the outright lap record, set by himself back in 2015 during qualifying, when he had 70 laps under his belt. Sure, the bike is faster than it was in 2015, and the Michelins are now better than the Bridgestones of 2015. But this was other worldly. This was Marc Márquez pointing out that he is in a league of his own.
"The reality is that he's one second ahead," was Maverick Viñales' frank assessment. "If it's morning or afternoon it doesn’t matter. He is one second ahead and has a really good rhythm."
Fabio Quartararo had likewise given up thinking about challenging Márquez, as he had done last week at Misano. "I think we don’t need to look at Marc," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "Marc is in another category this weekend and we saw this morning that he was really fast and I think that we saw at Misano it was not the track that was really for him and he won, I think this one is the best track for the Honda and for him. He can make 100% of himself and we saw that he was really fast so we will see on the weekend."
Strategy and tactics
Márquez acknowledged that this had all been part of the plan. "Basically first of all we tried to reduce the timings. Why? Because tomorrow the forecast looks like it will rain and FP3 will be wet," the Repsol Honda rider explained.
"Then our strategy was first of all to try to analyze the tires from last year and this year. Then we predicted that the tire choice that we want to make is between the hard and soft rear. For this reason I started directly with the hard and it was a good option. Then I felt ready on the second run to do a time attack."
This had been prepared with the team, Márquez admitted. "When I stopped in the box, and we already spoke about this with Santi yesterday and I say 'okay I feel ready'. Why wait until the afternoon? If you feel ready in the morning it was the Plan A, the perfect plan, because then in the afternoon the plan was to work with used tires and try to analyze between soft and hard rear which was better."
Márquez left no doubt about what his intention was. "Of course we are coming from two difficult circuits for us, Silverstone and Misano, and we were fighting for the victory but I already said yesterday that this one is left corners, a layout that I like, a layout that normally suits me. I feel good from the beginning and we can see this morning, we had the best example, I went out and from the beginning I found the correct lines, the correct brake points and even on the third run I was able to do a good time attack."
Analyzing Márquez' pace merely underlines his advantage. In the afternoon, while he was working on race pace using old tires, his lap was good enough for fourth. Everyone down to Andrea Iannone in 15th used a new soft tire to make their best lap time, and Iannone was over a second slower than Márquez. If Márquez can get a reasonable start, the race should be over by the end of the first lap.
Márquez' day was far from perfect, however. The Spaniard crashed in his second run using the hard front tire, washing out the front at Turn 8, the run down the hill into the Sacacorchos, or corkscrew. It is a difficult and dangerous spot, where riders brake very hard downhill, all the weight on the front of the bike as they try to turn in for the tight right hander, and difficult to judge how much the front tire will take.
That, too, was part of the plan, Márquez explained. "It's a tricky part but I knew and the team knew that I will have a very big chance to crash on the afternoon," he said. "Why? Because I tried the hard front tire, but looks like Sunday's conditions will be similar to today so I said to the team 'I prefer to take the risk this afternoon and if I have some warning I prefer to have this afternoon than on Sunday'."
The theory for Márquez was that it was better to crash on Friday than on Sunday, a policy which has brought him much success in the past. "I went out with the hard front. The first run was okay, then on the second run on the downhill just I lost the front," Márquez explained. "With the hard front you have less grip on the edge and I touched the white line a little and lost the front. But as I said to the team, I prefer to have the warning this afternoon than in the race. Okay, it's not the best way to try but it's the best way to choose the correct option for us in the race."
Does that mean he will use the medium, rather than the hard front tire in the race? It depends on the temperature. "We tried the hard because this morning I had some graining with the medium, but then on the last run I tried the medium again and didn’t have any graining, so this was important. Just we were on the limit with that hard tire that also we had the option to use in Misano and Misano for example was very warm but was not working. Here looks like there is better grip on the track but less temperature. So we were on the limit but we tried to understand where the limit was. We understand the limit is the temperature. If it's colder we cannot use, if it's warmer we can."
Racing for second
Is there anyone who can stop Márquez? It is only Friday, as Andrea Dovizioso likes to point out, but the Repsol Honda rider's advantage is huge. Behind him, though, things are getting interesting, with a big group of riders very close. Fastest of the second group looks to be Fabio Quartararo, who was running consistent low 1'49s throughout practice.
But the Petronas Yamaha rider was far from happy. "We are feeling quite good working on the pace but we are not at our 100% and not feeling so good with the bike," Quartararo said. "I think we are struggling a lot in sector 4, in sector 2 where we know which places, so I think at the moment we are not bad in our first time in Aragon but there are these areas where we need to work."
Quartararo was struggling in the same place that Márquez had crashed. "Sector 4 is a sector where we struggled quite a lot but there is also Sector 2 where there is the braking on the downhill, Turn 8, and there we feel like the bike is never stopping. Let’s say it is not funny but it is one of our first times that we are really struggling a little bit," he explained.
That sector was costing him a lot of time compared to Maverick Viñales, he said. "This [downhill brake] is quite aggressive. Not really long but it is aggressive. We will try to find something to really stop the bike in this area because we saw this morning when we compared the lap with Maverick and it was one point where we lose almost half of our time with him."
Progress is real
The good news for Yamaha is that all of their bikes are pretty quick, with both Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi on the pace in the afternoon, and even Franco Morbidelli posting a respectable race pace.
For Rossi, his speed in FP2 came as something of a relief. "The day started quite bad because in FP1 we were struggling very much, I had a bad tire at the beginning and this is difficult to recover because after we have just another one. But apart from the tire I was not very strong because I didn’t feel good with the bike, and I was quite worried because usually when you start bad, after it's difficult to recover with this level and a lot of different riders that are very strong."
"But the team worked well for the afternoon especially in the electronics," Rossi said. "We improved the entry and exit of the corner, and in the afternoon I had a better feeling. Also my pace with the pace tire is quite good, also if like always there are a lot of riders that are similar."
A strong showing at Aragon comes on top of a good weekend at Misano, and is a real sign of progress for Yamaha. "In the last races, especially for the second half of the season but already in the first half we improved a lot the electronics system of the bike in acceleration," Rossi said. "For example last year here the difference compared to the top bike was embarrassing exiting from the corner. Now looks like with nothing special, but just working in a better way and make the right balance, we exit from the corner in a better way and are closer to the other manufacturers. This is the main difference and after we work like you know with the exhaust and also with the mechanical grip, with the swingarm etc etc and I think also for this reason we improve."
In Aragon, Rossi is working with both the new exhaust and the carbon swingarm, while Maverick Viñales tested the new exhaust, but left the swingarm to one side."I only used the exhaust because there I feel a potential," the Spaniard said. "I wanted to spend time with the double exhaust and maybe in Buriram I'll spend time with the carbon swingarm."
The combination of new-found speed and the arrival of new parts is a sign of the internal changes going on at Yamaha. It has been ongoing since late last year, the most visible signs being the departure of project leader Kouji Tsuya, and now, MotoGP group leader Kouichi Tsuji.
Valentino Rossi was quite open about the departure of Tsuji. "I have a very good relationship with Tsuji-san because we work a lot of time together, since 2004," Rossi said. "For me, he is a very good engineer, but in the last years his role is not fantastic for him, for me. So I think this change is good to improve the development of the bike. Different people are arriving, that for me are very strong in Yamaha and fortunately we need that, because in the last years we are struggling always too much. But we need time to improve, so we will see in the future if we are able to be strong enough to win."
The Suzukis are quick too, though Alex Rins suffered a problem in FP1 with an engine which shut down. It was nothing to worry about, he said, and when I spoke to team boss Davide Brivio about it, he told me the engine would go back to Hamamatsu in Japan for inspection. Though engines are sealed, they are designed to be as inspection-friendly as possible, with oil passages and other openings designed to allow access for cameras and other tools. Rins still has two completely unused engines this season, so the engine allocation should not be a problem for him.
Beirer on Zarco
The most interesting part of the day came at the end, when Pit Beirer, KTM's Motorsport Director, gave his version of events surrounding the departure of Johann Zarco. Where on Thursday, Mike Leitner had spent 20 minutes to tell us very little, Beirer was a good deal more frank and free with information. It was not that we learned anything shocking, but what we did learn was a good deal more detailed than we might have expected.
Much of it was things we already knew. That Johann Zarco never managed to find a good feeling with the KTM RC16, and nothing that KTM did managed to address those issues. That morale was becoming a problem, and that was what made it necessary to replace Zarco before the end of the season. That Mika Kallio was the obvious choice to replace Zarco, and that Dani Pedrosa has no desire to ever race again, despite finding motivation as he gets quicker.
But there was plenty more which was unknown, or at least not explicitly spoken, which Beirer felt free to talk about. That Zarco's personality and character got in the way of his own success. "Especially that he could not control his emotions. And I’m not talking about the thing he said that was not so nice about the bike. That was OK. He put so much stress on himself when things were not going easy."
"That’s what he was always looking for; that easy riding. It was not there. He went aggressive. To succeed at this level, of course you need to be emotional and powerful in the moment, but you also need to calm down and analyze the situation. There he was super hot. When you were out of the box with him and you talked, everything was calm and he would say, ‘I understand, you are right, we are doing this and that.’ But then he goes riding and… Even last Saturday at Misano things went well, he could not see the positive. He was still complaining about the same things."
Two styles of bikes, two styles of riders
Hiring Zarco had also been an education in how the adaptability of riders could be a factor. "I think the whole paddock learned more that there are two different characters of bike and which bikes are easier to ride, which ones you are able to ride in a different riding style and which ones you need to win races," Beirer said.
"Somehow to me it was not clear when we took Johann over that there will be such a difference between two different bikes just from a pure riding style," Beirer continued. "When he came onboard, that was clear that our bike was more difficult to ride. We could already see with Pol that we improved and that things got better. For us we saw what Johann could do in a satellite team with a bike, technical-wise, that was almost a year back from the factory bike and he was beating the factory guys. I saw that in Johann, what a fighter he was and he didn’t care what material he had. He was never complaining or looking over to the factory team; he just took the bike and went faster. We saw that and thought, ‘Wow, that’s the guy we need.’ We were really sure that was our guy to bring the project forward and it didn’t work out."
How could KTM avoid a repeat of that mistake in the future? "Today I wouldn’t sign a Yamaha rider, for sure!" Beirer said, only half joking.
If Zarco worked on the mental aspect, could he overcome the limitations he imposed on himself? "If I talk to that second character that I also know, I would say yes!" Beirer said. "I think he also realized some things, and of course he will go home now and think, what happened, where did it go totally wrong?"
The problem started some time ago, Beirer believed. "For me, something huge happened already when he split up with Laurent Fellon, who was also a guy who could steer him mentally better. So I think also we were a little bit unlucky to get him in the wrong moment, that he wanted to become an adult and organize his life himself, and split from his old connections, and I think some of his old connections were really helpful to keep him in a straight line. But at the end of the day, he needs to grow up, and that whole story will make him stronger, and something was new in effect with him."
Where Zarco had struggled had also been in adapting to being a factory rider, Beirer believed. "You need to make your own bike. There is a basic bike, but then you have 100 pieces to choose from and if you choose the wrong part ten times, that bike is completely different to the one from your teammate. And I think if you want to survive as a factory rider, you need to be very cool in choosing your bike and making your bike, and making it an advantage for you. And there I think he learned a lot. He had to test many things, and he wasn't used to that. Before, with Hervé, he got a bike that was ready to go, and he didn't think about the bike, that made him strong. But in the end, you only come to a certain level with that way. If you want to win this championship, you have to set up your own bike with a factory team. I'm sure he will be better in the future."
Would KTM allow Zarco to ride somewhere else, in MotoGP, a factory team, or anywhere else before the end of the 2019 season, if the opportunity presented itself? "Yes," Beirer was adamant. "We talked about this this week. And to underline how much I like this boy, and how much I want the best for him, he's under contract with us, we're going to pay him until the end of the season, but if he comes tomorrow and he wants to test any motorcycle or race any motorcycle, he can even race against us this Sunday, because I want the best for him. And if there is the smallest chance, he has to jump on it with my full support, and we will fix all the paperwork needed to get the release, I don't even know how that will work, but we will make it happen, that's for sure."
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